Friday, June 11, 2010

Corruption in Nigeria: is Jordan Smith Right?

In the premises of a clinic in Ibadan, I overheard three women (Picture to your left) discussing a wide range of issues. Sitting under a huge tree, they lamented the recklessness with which politicians steal and lavish government money in Nigeria. One of them, a terribly aggrieved woman, told the other two of a politician she ‘helped’ during the 2007 elections. According to her, as a result of her help, the politician won and was now earning lots of money.

She did not specify the nature of the ‘help’ she rendered this politician. What she emphasised was the grievous disappointment she had encountered in the hands of ‘that ingrate’.

Her son was on admission and needed surgery. She had no money but had assurance of getting money from the politician. She went to him but all the man gave her was ten thousand naira (about $70). The surgery was to cost thrice that amount. She felt greatly let down because, according to her, even those who did not ‘help’ this politician had received substantial financial help from him.

She and her friends acknowledged the fact that politicians steal government money but wonder why this particular ‘ingrate’ would not share with those who ‘helped’ him. “We are not saying they should not eat money [embezzle money]. But when they eat at least they should remember us who put them in position of power”, they concluded.

I have serious problems with Jordan Smith’s studies of corruption in Nigeria but my anger is made worse each time I see his assertions played out in conversations and conduct of so-called ordinary Nigerians. One of Smith’s (2007)* conclusions is that among Nigerians, embezzlement of public funds and other forms of corruption attract anger and bitter condemnation only when the discussants are not direct or indirect beneficiaries of the loot. If the loot gets to the average Nigerian, they shut their eyes to its sources and the dirt surrounding it. Maybe on this one, Smith was right.

*Smith, J. D. (2007). A culture of corruption: everyday deception and popular discontent in Nigeria. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press